Grace Community Church and Pastor John MacArthur have brought a powerful court challenge against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D-Calif.) ban on in-person church meetings. Grace Community Church has refused to comply with the ban, its congregation exercising their First Amendment rights of religious freedom and free association. Los Angeles County filed a motion asking a judge to find Grace Community Church in contempt of court, but the judge flatly denied the motion.
“Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff correctly found there is no court order prohibiting Grace Community Church from holding indoor services,” Jenna Ellis, one of MacArthur’s lawyers who also served as President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer during the impeachment trial, said in a statement Thursday. “LA County continues to harass and target Pastor MacArthur. Having failed to get a court order to shut down the church they have sought three times, they’re going to try again by hauling us back into court.”
“Ironically, LA County said in its application for contempt that ‘Grace Church cannot thumb its nose at the court when decisions don’t go its way,’ yet that’s precisely what LA County is now doing themselves,” Ellis explained. “We will simply continue to defend our client’s constitutionally protected rights because church is essential.”
On August 14, the county applied for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to stop the church from meeting in person, but Judge James Chalfant issued an order allowing the church to worship in person. On August 15, an appeals court stayed that order, allowing the county to enforce the coronavirus lockdown restrictions until September 4. However, the appeals court did not issue a TRO against the church, so there was no live order when the county petitioned to have MacArthur held in contempt of court for ostensibly violating an order.
MacArthur’s lawsuit is challenging the health department’s coronavirus restrictions banning the church from meeting in person. While the appeals court allowed the health department to enforce those restrictions, it did not issue a restraining order against the church. The City of Los Angeles has previously threatened Grace Community Church and MacArthur with a daily fine of $1,000 or arrest.
Rather than carrying out this previous threat, Los Angeles tried to get MacArthur held in contempt of court for supposedly violating a court order that does not exist. This effort fell flat on its face.
Why didn’t the city merely enforce the health order and issue the fines? Perhaps Los Angeles’s lawyers are afraid they will lose the lawsuit. If the city issues fines and arrests MacArthur and his congregation, not only would that provide a concrete and visceral example of the county’s oppressive crackdown on religious freedom but it would also increase the amount of damages awarded to MacArthur and GCC if they prevail in the case.
The lawsuit paints a damning picture of the despicable double standard in California’s coronavirus restrictions. According to the lawsuit, the American people have witnessed that “the onerous restrictions imposed on them by public officials to allegedly fight the COVID-19 pandemic simply do not apply to certain, favored groups. When many went to the streets to engage in ‘political’ or ‘peaceful’ protests purportedly against racism and police brutality, these protestors refused to comply with the pandemic restrictions. Instead of enforcing the public health orders, public officials were all too eager to grant a de facto exception for these favored protestors.”
Indeed, even after Newsom banned anti-lockdown protests, the governor encouraged the anti-racism protesters to “express” their “rage” so the public could “hear” it. Not only did the George Floyd protests lead to a spike in coronavirus cases, but this double standard exacerbated the “mitigation fatigue” among Californians in the 20-50 age bracket, who responded by breaking coronavirus restrictions. These trends led to a spike in infection rates, but not to a spike in hospitalizations or deaths.
This turn of events “irreparably damaged the confidence of Americans—and Californians especially—who now realize that the pandemic restrictions are neither necessary nor good,” the lawsuit claims. “With deaths from the ‘COVID-19 suicide pandemic’ exceeding those from the actual coronavirus pandemic, Grace Community Church decided that it would no longer sit by and watch its members and their children suffer from an absence of essential religious worship and instruction.”
Charles LiMandri, another of MacArthur’s lawyers, noted that California “has given free rein to protestors, and is not similarly restricting marijuana dispensaries, large retail outlets and factories, and abortion providers.”
“Church is essential, and the government has no power to arbitrate whether religious organizations are essential. This is not about health and safety, it is about targeting churches,” Ellis declared.
Gov. Newsom has reportedly threatened to cut off power to any church that continues to meet in-person. Yet he is facing a large movement of civil disobedience. A network of California churches sued him last month and many churches throughout the state have vowed to hold in-person worship services despite the state ban on gatherings.
Los Angeles’s contempt-of-court shenanigans only underscore California’s disgusting tactics to shut down churches. Why go to such lengths against Christians while protecting privileged protesters in the streets?
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.